Documentary, Rated PG-13, 114 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
When Luciano Pavarotti died of pancreatic cancer in 2007, many opera lovers had mixed feelings. The tenor was only 71 and it hadn’t been so long since he was the reigning star of his generation, still giving magnificent performances of his core repertoire into the 1990s. And he had always seemed to have a great lust for life, happy to indulge his love of food and, when he wanted to, his love of people, crowds, and all the adulation that came with being the most celebrated tenor since Caruso.
But even in the 1990s, it was a hit or miss with Pavarotti. Maybe he’d show up, or maybe he wouldn’t, and even when he did, there were too many evenings when he stood like a lump onstage and declined to move, to act, or to engage with other singers. His voice was often in fine form, but the deeper radiance of his artistry — immediately obvious from recordings made in the 1960s and ’70s — was often dim, or altogether extinguished. Then there were the scandals. There were accusations of lip-syncing at some performances, and a tax evasion charge after he claimed residence in the notorious tax haven of Monte Carlo (he paid huge fees and penalties but was acquitted of criminal wrongdoing).
The best thing about Ron Howard’s polished new documentary, Pavarotti, is its compassion for the man, who emerges frail but not hollow, merely human and not the pathetic clown he so often seemed in his last decade. Using previously unseen video clips made by Pavarotti’s second wife, Nicoletta, and interviews with his first wife and their adult daughters, Howard encourages viewers to give Pavarotti the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his love life. It was always messy, as his first wife knew, and yet she seems to have forgiven him. If she can, we can.
Howard is incapable of working outside the rigid cliché structure that governs Hollywood filmmaking, so his efforts to get at the “real” Pavarotti yield multiple Pavarottis. Pavarotti was a simple man, but he was also a complicated and troubled man, uncertain of his own great genius. He was happy, but he was also sad. He was complex. He was operatic.
Despite the omissions, Howard’s Pavarotti is still an occasion for reflection, and the picture it presents of the tenor is sufficiently rounded that those new to his artistry will likely be beguiled. He was, in fact, one of the greatest artists of the last century.
Somewhere a little past the middle of his life, the singer seems to have lost his way. But that’s an old story, and given all that he accomplished before those wrong turns, who can blame him in the end? For a quarter-century or more, he did his duty, and then he no longer felt obliged to it. On balance, he left an incomparable legacy.